Editorial: No free ride
News leaked this week that five states — Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Vermont — are applying for a federal grant to study collecting a fee for every mile a vehicle is driven. The states belong to the I-95 Corridor Coalition and their application claims fuel taxes are not keeping up with infrastructure and operational needs of the area’s roadways, particularly because the infrastructure in the Northeast is the nation’s oldest.
This is, in part, because the federal fuel tax has not been raised since 1993. Ironically, however, the coalition’s application puts some blame on the increased fuel efficiency of cars. People do not have to gas up as often, therefore they do not pay as much in fuel taxes. Drivers of electric vehicles pay no gas tax at all.
It is certainly true our nation’s roadways are in terrible disrepair and those in the Northeast are among the worst. But collecting a tax on miles driven — a mileage-based user fee (MBUF) — is a very complicated and intrusive way for each driver to pay their fair share.
Among the issues that need to be resolved:
- Sharing of cross-state miles traveled, as well as miles traveled along state and local roads within a state.
- Establishing costs. There has been discussion of fees based on point of origin of a vehicle, congestion pricing, and fuel efficiency of vehicles as well as miles driven.
- What will happen to any travel-related information after it is collected?
This last item is one of the biggest concerns in that it directly affects one’s privacy, something we have very precious little of these days. There are devices that can measure only miles driven, but that would not address sorting out each state’s share of a driver’s cross-state trip. But there are also devices that can pinpoint dates, times, and locations. There is the possibility this would be turned over to private enterprise — would information collected then be available for sale?
The coalition says it will offer choices, including considering a flat fee approach that requires no mileage reporting. Unfortunately, the application goes on to say this approach would be for “those individuals who have significant privacy concerns (and perhaps a bit of paranoia).” That is simply offensive.
The idea of a mileage tax was floated in the state legislature last year and state officials say there are no immediate plans to reintroduce it. But the coalition application includes a request for $45,000 to craft “model state MBUF legislation.”
Perhaps this is the way of the future, particularly if it replaces a gas tax and replaces talk of tolls, and perhaps not. But whatever direction it takes, it is a road that must be traveled very slowly and very carefully.